Colliding Particles - Hunting the Higgs

Way over at the other end of the intellectual spectrum from the deluge of celebrity gossip sites, or, perhaps more literally, web shows where people blow things up, is the web series Colliding Particles.

Beautifully shot and equal to the quality level of any high-end documentary, the thus-far four episode series peaks into the world of particle physics (and theoretical particle physics) vis-à-vis three scientists who are in some way involved with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland.

Gavin, Jon and Adam are attempting to devise “a cunning plan to find the Higgs boson, an elusive particle which physicists have been trying to find for over 40 years.” It sounds like they’re trying to better understand the nature of matter by devising a huge proton collision. But don’t take my word for it – these guys describe it much more articulately.

Colliding Particles isn’t quite as much about the pursuit or ultimate event itself so much as a more down-to-earth meditation on the context and three gentle men who make up a small segment of CERN’s scientific community.

Each of the three physicists is given his own forum during the series. They share time during Codename Eurostar; Adam, a partical physicist PhD. student, is given a bit more time in Big Bang Day; experimental particle physicist Jon stars in Conference Season; and Gavin, a theoretical particle physicist who lives in Paris, dominates Problems.

Colliding ParticlesIf you’re not a documentary-leaning aficionado (of the PBS, or other non-sensational varieties), or a physicist yourself, you’re probably better off watching something else, but know that you’re missing out. Colliding Particles is as good as any dogfight reenactments, renaissance man rebuilds, or TED Talks you’ll find on TV or on the web.

In ‘Conferences,’ Jon travels to Philadelphia to present his Eurostar paper. As the director of the conference himself says, “the conversations are the real value.” While one can get all the talks on screen right after they’re presented, the human interaction, with all its improvisations, debates, and so on, makes the ticket and travel worth the price of admission.

Later, the conference director adds, “much of the work happens at one of the many side conferences, where somebody will be sketching on a napkin…”

‘Big Bang Day’ simultaneously explores the somewhat anticlimactic build-up of the first run through of the Hadron Collider, with several stolen moments of the media behind the scenes. It’s meta-coverage of an event that has been widely incorporated into documentary filmmaking, but especially effective here.

Adam, the youngest of the three (he looks all of 23, but based on his education may be closer to 26), almost steals the show from his colleagues. He’s quite charismatic, well-spoken and deflects many of our expectations of what a scientist is like.

Indeed, the series as a whole shows scientists to just be regular folk, just like you and me. Only they’ve got smaller particles to collide. Learn something at CollidingParticles.com.

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